Work dinners are tricky to navigate. The first consideration with a work dinner is who will be there and what is the purpose of the dinner. In considering this, it will also guide you as to the dress code and the types of conversations to prepare for. You also need to consider how you might best present yourself going forward.
Think about the purpose of the dinner: Is it a celebration... or is it a gathering put forward as the idea of a social... or is the purpose that somebody is leaving or joining the team? The type of dinner sets the ‘tone’. You must consider who is the guest of honour and what is your role in relation to the guest of honour. Also why you have been specifically invited to this function?
The purpose of the dinner will guide what is going to happen. Is there going to be a toast or other formalities during the course of evening? Let’s assume this is just a work gathering, a bit of a get to know you or a coming together informally to recognise someone’s success.
Remember, in the work context there are really no informal situations, there are just less formal situations. You need to recognise that work colleagues are colleagues first and friends second. Even if these people are your friends outside of the workplace, the context for the dinner is set from the workplace condition. This means that the behaviour will be measured against workplace behaviour and standards. This is really key to helping you navigate all the social functions you will attend where there are work colleagues or potential work colleagues. It is quite different to a social barbecue that has no career context at all.
Now that you know the reason you're gathering, you need to think about how you will be seen over the course of the event. If it is someone else’s achievement, then your role is to make sure they are the centre of attention and the evening; your behaviour will be all about them. This is a critical component of doing well in such situations. It will drive how you interact with others but also how you present yourself. Think of it as akin to a wedding, it is the Bride’s day and your role is a supporting role.
After reason, think about location. Is it a fine dining restaurant or a simple casual restaurant? What about if it is a party at your manager’s home? Location is one of the key indicators of the tone of what the evening is going to bring. It tells us much about the type of behaviour that will be expected and the level of formality to be observed during the evening. In a casual bistro, speeches will be less formal and attire is office casual clothes, whereas a ballroom will require a smart cocktail dress, of a certain length and with certain ‘coverage’. A more formal dining situation leads to different considerations as the evening progresses.
Now you can consider what might be the most appropriate type of dress. Remember that business attire for all events can vary based on the context of your work and where your gathering. You want to be remembered for your comments and grace, not what you wore or how you wore it. Why was Julia Gillard always a discussion about dress and Julia Bishop is about substance? The answer is simple, make sure how you’re dressed blends with the situation. Then you will be heard for you, and you will be able to shine without worrying about other distractions.